As the first light of the day breaks over the Arabian Sea, the air is salty and carrying the unmistakable scent of fish entrails, squalling of seagulls drowned out by the chattering of buyers and trawlers at the Sassoon Dock.
For over 500 years, the Koli fishing communities have been dredging up and auctioning mackerel, squid and sailfish along the coastal waters of the seven islands that comprise the modern day city of Mumbai. Additionally the Samavedis, Wadvals, Kulbis and Salsette Christians make up the original inhabitants who were converted by the Portuguese missionaries as far back as the 15th century. To differentiate these Roman Catholics of the north Konkan from the Goans and Mangaloreans who were Portuguese subjects for a long time, Bombay’s handover to the British Raj introduced an arbitrary demarcation, relegating the baptised fisherfolk and farmers to the geographically inaccurate moniker of ‘East Indians’.
Despite modernisation and urban development encroaching upon their gaothans, a few cloistered neighbourhoods like Khotachiwadi have managed to preserve their way of life. Characterised by the picturesque century-old bungalows with trellised balconies and gabled rooftops, narrow lanes that inadvertently bisect at an elevated chapel, these urban villages are all that is left of the chequered Portuguese legacy in India.
If you were to walk through these back lanes, you wouldn't be able to miss the mildly sweet fragrance of sannas or the vinegary tang of sorpotel wafting out of the windows, iconic delicacies savoured not only in homes but also restaurants dedicated to the promoting the gourmet heritage of the East Indians. A richly nuanced palimpsest of Portuguese, British and Konkani palates, the balchão and vindaloo preparations are known for their nostalgic appeal of being grandmothers' recipes passed down over generations. Luckily for those not born into the culture, there are historical gems like The East Indian Cookery Book that document the gastronomic evolution of the community's game changer puddings and pickles.
Established in the 1880s, the Bombay East Indian Association (BEIA) was a bastion to protect the interests and rights of the economically backward but generally literate East Indians of Bassein (Vasai), Salsette and Thane divisions. Published by the BEIA in 1981, the committee-written cookbook mentions Martin Fonseca, Elfreda d’Almeida and the Ladies’ Sub-Committee for their contributions in a foreword by Padma Shri winning nutritionist Thangam Philip.
The fanaticism of guarding the secrets of their family kitchens would explain why there wasn't a single compendium from the community until aforementioned primer, recipes inveigled from mothers to daughters, and seldom to daughter-in-laws. The pro-tip to get the most out of The East Indian Cookery Book is by keeping bottle masala and a quant of palm vinegar handy. Bottle masala is a unique blend of spices churned out by East Indians during summers, rumoured to carry more than 30 ingredients, from Kashmiri chillies to lichen. After they are dried out on the terraces or in courtyards, these condiments would be pummelled fervently in earthen pots with long poles, reduced to a powder and then transferred to beer bottles for their dark glass to protect them from the sun.
Festivals play a significant role in the East Indian culinary calendar. Christmas and Easter are celebrated with grand feasts that include a variety of customary dishes. Incredulously crispy deep-fried snacks like fugias, versatile rice crêpes called chitaps and piquant curries for mutton or pumpkin are printed cheek-to-jowl in the cookbook with comprehensive sections on sweetmeats like marzipan, banana fritters and navries (coconut-stuffed pastries) or the much adored bebinca.
One of the standout recipes is for 'ginger wine', a traditional beverage that has found its way into many households, stirred and strained for weeks in ceramic jars called barnis. Deemed a popular choice during the winter months, it is often enjoyed as a standalone drink but can also be an unconventional base for cocktails.
Additionally, ginger wine is believed to have diverse health benefits, including aiding digestion and providing relief from colds and flu. Though it can be prepared within a matter of three days but for the sharp kick that it's known for, you have to let it ferment longer.
Ingredients: Fresh ginger roots, sugar, cloves, lemon juice, yeast and water. Adding cinnamon and dried chillies can imbue it with a certain je ne sais quoi that your neighbours will be talking about for years.
Method: Peel and finely grate fresh ginger to yield about 1 cup. Boil the ginger in water for about 10 minutes to form a ginger concentrate. Strain the concentrate into a large bowl, add sugar, and stir until dissolved. Add cloves, cinnamon sticks, raisins, and lemon juice to the ginger-sugar mixture. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Then introduce yeast and cover the bowl with a cloth. Let the mixture ferment for about 2-3 days in a warm place. Strain the liquid into clean bottles and seal them away from direct sunlight. You must age the ginger wine over at least a month for the best flavour.
The East Indian community's epicurean heritage in Mumbai is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of cultures over time. Originally there were at least 169 gaothans, however the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) records report less than 80 of these neighbourhoods lingering in the recesses of the city. But come the season of Lent, papiya hymns echo through the alleyways of Khotachiwadi and Matharpacady, resurrecting the hallowed prayers of this dwindling community.